This is a small falcon indigenous to North America and sometimes a bit incorrectly referred to as being a ‘sparrow hawk.’ This regulated but non-endangered bird is the most common beginner’s bird in falconry.
We had a nesting pair of these use a hollow in the apple tree in front of my parent’s house when I was a teenager. It was neat seeing these magnificent-looking falcons flying in and out of the nest. Kestrels pair-bond for the most part and year after year, will often return to the same nesting spot. Both the male and female tend the nest and tothe care and raising of the young. Although a falcon which might suggest a diet of only mammals, the American kestrel’s diet is mostly insects.
American Kestrel, a.k.a. Sparrow Hawk
These migratory birds do fly south for the winter although it is not unheard of that some males remain locally even throughout the winter. With the warmer-than-average winters we have been seeing in recent years it may be possible that more than just occasionally we might a kestrel over-winter in the northern regions of the U.S. and even into Canada. As it is, we have had American Robins over-winter here in the Toronto, Canada region before.
American kestrels are the smallest of the falcon species in all of North America, being roughly the size of an American Robin. The males and females are approximately the same size with males being slightly smaller, but there exists a sexual dimorphism between the genders. There are variations of colors and feather patterns between the genders which are among the kestrels sometimes mild and difficult to ascertain from simple bird-watching. What is obvious at least upon viewing is the similarity of the American kestrel resembling a sparrow. At least, that is always the impression I am left with upon seeing a kestrel.
Over-wintering kestrels will prey upon small birds and mice which are available year ‘round. Insects would be rare or absent in winter. Their main diet in the spring through fall nesting season are along with small birds and mice, would include lizards, dragonflies, cicadas, beetles, grasshoppers and the like.
Kestrels will often perch upon telephone wires or poles along highways and watch for insects and mice. This strategy helps to explain the incidences of kestrels being killed by passing motor vehicles as the falcon will often swoop down to intercept a fast-moving prey item either just ahead of or in the wake of a passing vehicle.
Kestrels unlike most hawks can actually hover over one spot. Upon spotting prey, they will dive rapidly. If the prey moves or runs to cover, the kestrel will circle back and hover again in a bid to re-acquire a line of sight. Sometimes, a kestrel will land upon the ground in an attempt to flush its quarry and catch it that way, sometimes jumping into in flight tointercept in the case of dragonflies or grasshoppers flushed from hiding.
Bird of Prey
Because the specie is widespread and listed as being of ‘Least Concern’ (don’t worry, this isn’t a disrespectful status. It means that it is neither endangered or threatened) it is often kept in falconry as a beginner’s charge.
Due to its diminutive size, flighty nature and fragility of body they are considered to be one of the more difficult falcon species to keep. Falconers use the American kestrel to game hunt other small birds, mainly the invasive species of European sparrows, and notably, starlings (a nuisance and pest bird.) Obviously, protected songbirds are not hunted by falconers. The slightly larger female kestrel has been known to take down doves although this is fairly uncommon, as the size of the female kestrel and dove are nearly equal and it is likely an even match, risking injury to the delicate kestrel.
Kestrels calm down fairly quickly with regular handling, often in as little as a month or less. This lends them as a favorable first falcon to the beginner falconer. Kept indoors for their own protection and better management of their diet and housing, a downside is that kestrels are loud and scream a lot. They make a high-pitched screech especially in the presence of their keeper in what is said to be begging constantly to be fed.
Image via Wikipedia
Most falconers whom keep an American kestrel will release their bird of prey back into the wild when the falcon reaches breeding age. Because the species in not endangered or even threatened in the wild, this is of no significant benefit to the feral population, which is estimated to be in the millions in America alone. Releasing to the wild is mostly an act of kindness and again, due to the abundance of the specie, a younger replacement can be readily acquired. An apprentice falconer having graduated from successfully kept an American kestrel for term (it did not die in the care of the owner during the several years of stewardship) has proved their worth. The apprentice falconer can be permitted to move on to a larger, more stringently regulated specie of falcon.